The viral video campaign reinforces a dangerous, centuries-old idea that Africans are helpless and that idealistic Westerners must save them.
Staff from Invisible Children direct Africans in a still from their Kony 2012 video / YouTube
The backlash against Kony 2012, a super-popular social media campaign to raise awareness about deranged warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, has mostly focused on two things. First, the group behind it, Invisible Children, has a poor track record and shady finances; and, second, the campaign's uninformed and almost infantilizing over-simplifications are probably going to do very little beyond raise lots of money and publicity for Invisible Children. But campaigns like this one, and this one especially, can end up doing more harm than good.
Kony 2012 is so seductive for precisely the same reasons that make it so dangerous. The half-hour video, now viewed 40 million times, sets viewers up for a message so gratifying and fulfilling that it is almost impossible to resist: there is a terrible problem in the world, you are the solution, and all you have to do is pass along this video. Unless you're already well-enough informed on Central Africa to see the video's many flaws -- and the vast majority of people, very understandably, are not -- only the most guarded skeptic is going to be able to resist. There's a certain tragedy to that because, as with the sad revelations that Greg Mortenson's book about saving Afghanistan by building schools turned out to be a fabrication, it teaches people to be cynical about activism.
MORE ON THE LORD'S RESISTANCE ARMY
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|Kony 2012: Solving War Crimes With Wristbands|
|A Mission That Requires More Than Guns|
|Obama's War on the LRA|
But the damage of Kony 2012 is probably already done, and that damage is real. First, it's likely to actually decrease the amount of help that goes into Central Africa. The video is a joy to watch and spread because it tells Americans that by simply watching a video, and at most maybe buying a $30 "action kit" of wristbands and stickers, they have done all that's necessary; they are absolved of responsibility. How much money has Invisible Children soaked up that could have gone to actually effective campaigns or more experienced NGOs? How many people might have put their energy, which after all is finite, toward something more constructive? As Amanda Taub and Kate Cronin-Furman write, "Campaigns that focus on bracelets and social media absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy, and take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy."